Avnet shows off digital signs that interact with, monitor viewers

The face of commercial signage is about to be transformed, experts say, and Phoenix-based Avnet Inc. is hoping to lead the revolution. Electronics-industry analysts predict that by 2015, about 22 million traditional signs in grocery stores, shopping malls, restaurants, health clinics and other businesses will be replaced with digital displays that interact with consumers in various ways.

Many of those new signs will allow touch-screen input, such as ordering a menu item or renewing a prescription.

Some signs will monitor and count each person who passes in front of them, even analyzing faces to determine demographic information such as gender and age.

Such displays may show customized advertisements based on that data, perhaps pitching aftershave lotion or athletic wear to a group of young men, and then changing to vitamin supplements or vacation packages for a group of older women.

The technology to do all of the above has been available for some time, said Gina Tammo of Avnet's Embedded Display Solutions Group, and it has finally become cost-effective for many businesses.

Avnet hosted a special tour Monday at its Global Solutions Center in Chandler to show off new digital-sign products it is selling to commercial customers.

Those products include a 16- by 12-foot high-definition video screen, a 70-inch touch-screen digital whiteboard, a 70-inch holographic display that shows 3-D images viewers can discern without special glasses, and a see-through display that projects color images inside a pane of clear glass.

Many of the digital-sign products that Avnet showed off at the event also have digital cameras or sensors, along with embedded computers loaded with image-recognition software. They can watch while they are being watched, Tammo said, primarily to gather consumer-traffic and demographic information for use by marketers.

Avnet does not manufacture the digital-sign components; rather, it assembles them into ready-to-use systems, and it installs and services those systems for its customers.

A typical digital-signage system might have a touch-screen display panel by Sharp or Samsung, a Logitech video camera and a microprocessor by Intel running Microsoft's Windows 7 for Embedded Systems operating system.

"Avnet has relationships with all kinds of suppliers that provide all kinds of parts," Tammo said.

A commercial-grade digital sign can run all day, every day for up to 10 years without burning out or breaking, Tammo said.

Digital signs can be programmed to display daily or hourly specials, gather consumer data, receive direct input from customers and perform other useful tasks for retailers and other businesses, she added.

Chuck Kostalnick, the senior executive in charge of Avnet's digital-signage unit, said industry analysts are predicting compound annual growth of 24 percent in the field for the foreseeable future.

Avnet CEO Rick Hamada said tours that allow potential customers to interact with digital-sign products in person are the most effective way to market the new technology.

"Brochures never quite do it justice," Hamada said.

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